It made a terrible sound, my Sidekick 2 striking the wall. I’d thrown it, on purpose, with angry intent. It never worked very well in my apartment, and on this day, my repeated attempts to call out received only a busy signal, a historically annoying tonal aggression made all the more annoying by the fact that there is no such thing as a busy phone anymore. And yet the vast computer system that controls T-Mobile’s satellites and relay towers and switching centers has been programmed to subject who knows how many million customers to that blaring vestige of analog telephony whenever its billion-dollar circuitry fails to place your call properly. WTF?!?!! Plus, it was really boiling that day, and maybe there was some other emotional stuff going on, and I’d locked myself out earlier, and, well, when the 20th anachronistic busy signal was blasted into my ear by my Sidekick 2, I wound up and threw the fucking thing.
It was a meltdown, one that was extraordinarily satisfying for somewhere around three seconds — about the same amount of time it seemed like a good idea to pour apple juice on my head as an attempt to cool off when I was too hot one summer. That was near the same age at which I last broke something on purpose, a sleek and beautiful model rocket whose parachute mysteriously stopped deploying. When my attempted fixes didn’t work, I decided no beauty was better than flawed beauty and set the whole thing on fire. Then I bought an even better one.
My Sidekick 2 was more than just a model rocket. I got it on a lark, but as soon as I fired up “the Kicker,” our identities were inextricably bound. I was the only one of my friends who had it. Everyone loved to marvel at the swiveling screen and satisfyingly tactile keyboard through which I was constantly mediating a stream of vital and meaningful information, such as the following text messages:
JS: Where u @? For old acquaintance be forgot . . .
Me: I’m on the can at the Weekly. 4th Floor — the nice bathroom. All alone.
JS: I’m @ Grove. Mad sidewalk bargainz.
Me: What did U do last nite?
JS: Kicked it wit the lady. You?
Me: WORK WORK WORK till late! Then I came home & caught tail end of AVP
Me: ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR
JS: Right: Whoever wins — we lose
Me: You eat?
JS: Bout to fuck up some BABY FIELD GREENS Y’ALL!
Like many people, I have a conflicted relationship with my technology. The problem with new personal-communication tools is that more personal communication isn’t always a step forward. The Sidekick, and its corporate-oriented cousin, the BlackBerry, are supposed to make life easier by routing your manifold electronic conduits into a single device, which, if you think about it, really means that you are paying good money to carry all your problems with you at all times.
Yes, the Internet provides an endless information resource — which eventually sucks you into a black hole of procrastination. Instant messaging allows for frictionless textual contact between all the people of Earth, and yet is used almost exclusively to help fritter away lives with meaningless banter. Bluetooth headsets inaugurated the era of hands-free living while subjecting us to the visual nightmare of middle-aged men outfitting themselves as cyborgs for $39.99 at Best Buy. I used to look forward to the day when I would live on some Greek island, in need of no possessions except a tan tunic and the sentient computer that would live on my wrist, a random-access node integrating at will with the vast and powerful infosphere — until I realized I would use this technological nirvana to spend all my time watching home videos of infants farting baby powder and messaging other information priests about Alien Versus Predator.
And yet, I’d already started down that path. Whether I liked it or not, my Sidekick was my electronic representative out in the ether, always on call, heroically attempting to reduce the vast chaos of the world into some text and pictures on a 2.5-inch LCD display. We were symbiotically entwined in an ongoing effort to simplify things. A Sisyphean task, yes, but at least I faced it with a partner.
Until I killed it. It was with trembling hands that I picked up my poor, broken companion off the floor and confronted the reality of my own tragic rage. My little buddy looked so sad, his lifeless screen cracked and twisted, never to alert me to an upcoming event with a customized domo arigato ringtone ever again. The remorse was genuine. I felt like a parent might after being arrested for shaken-baby syndrome: I don’t know what happened — it just wouldn’t shut up. Had I been more inclined toward Shakespearean penance, I would have clawed my own eyes out.
All this was especially disappointing, since I’d been reading a book of Zen approaches to contemporary life that urges the reader to make a spiritual alliance with his or her technology. Among the recommendations: Bow to your computer, breathe deeply 10 times when turning it on, and contemplate the meaning of the ALT key. (“There are always alternatives, other options.”) Sounds silly, but I was kind of buying it. Don’t fight the machines, the book cautions. Make peace with them instead.
Extending the principle, I’d been following a New Year’s resolution to create such a practice with all technology, including my Bodum latte frother, which I’d started plunging each morning carefully and slowly, with erect posture and with eyes closed, exactly 50 times. Infuse everything with purpose, the book says, because to do otherwise guides us down the wrong path. It was working. My ambivalence toward machines abated. And I discovered that 50 perfect strokes with the Bodum plunger seemed to unlock some kind of air elemental spell that created the most perfect and long-lasting latte foam I have ever seen. In light of this training, I knew that my dead Sidekick 2 represented a sign of weakness. I had failed to make peace with my phone and myself. It was a lack of self-mastery.
Or was it? Holding my broken Sidekick 2, a new thought emerged: What if my act of destruction was a necessary catalyst for some kind of metamorphosis, a Nietzschean overcoming of our soulless technological society? Old Josh had become New Josh, and New Josh says: There is no truce with machines. To believe in such a truce is the true weakness. All machines do is trap you in an informational Escher domain of loops and fractured identity that forestalls real decisions and reflection. How are we supposed to glimpse the incandescent Absolute when we’re doomed to obsessively fill the atmosphere with ROFLMAO at 824 to 849 megahertz? Anyone who’s seen people texting/instant messaging/e-mailing/checking box scores during a movie/meeting/party/conversation/date/surgical procedure knows that these devices are less liberators than vicious overlords. And although people threaten that they’re going to throw their phones into the sea, they’re too enslaved to do so. Except for New Josh. He doesn’t shy away from bold action. New Josh sees the Sidekick 2’s cracked screen as a celebration of self, a prison break, a return to the Eden before the cellular singularity, when human beings could exist without a phone, the Internet, emoticons.
That liberating mindset lasted about 1.5 days, until New Josh wandered past a T-Mobile store and saw the new, limited-edition Sidekick 3, all sleek and fancy, and was instantly sucked back into the technological vortex. I installed the SIM card, fired up the new Kicker, and quickly got down to business with some vital text messaging:
Me: Whass crackin?
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JS: Electric Lotus
JS: Pass da muhfuckin chutney, beyooootch!